Sophie B. Hawkins
photo by Rose Gardina
Boston Girl Guide ‘s Exclusive interview with Sophie B Hawkins 8/01
Sophie B Hawkins began her musical career in her native New York City at age 14, studying African drums with Babatunde Olatunji, going on to further study classical percussion at Manhattan School of Music. Later drumming, playing vibes and singing at such clubs as CBGB’s and working as a coat check girl, she gave Mark Cohn a 50 song demo tape recorded at a home studio. A jingle producer called her and soon her voice was heard singing the well know jingle for the Nestle’s Sweet Dreams White Chocolate Bar. The demo included “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” and most of the songs from Tongues & Tails led to a stint as a percussionist on tour with Bryan Ferry and her record deal at Columbia. The mega-hit “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” instantly became her signature song.
in the midst of penning a novel and recording new songs, Hawkins is
excited about touring to promote her new record TIMBRE to audiences
around the world.
BGG: You play so many instruments- which was the hardest to learn, or are you just a natural?
SBH: I think they’re all hard to play until you find your own voice. The hardest one ever for me is cello. But I think it’s hard for everybody. Cello is the most recent one, and I think it’s the hardest because so many intonations but it’s the most fulfilling so far. Piano is the easiest for sure, guitar is really easy and that’s why I like to write on it.The African drum is the hardest in a way because I had to begin on it. Because it was my first ever instrument; there was so many issues of learning how to practice, how to become disciplined and all that stuff which only you can teach yourself. You have to be comfortable within and I didn’t really have a sense of that.
BGG: What or who inspires you in your creativity?
SBH: When I was a teenager, the people who inspired me mostly were people like Thelonious Monk and Elvin Jones, I guess more of the really original musicians. At this point it’s like almost everything inspires me. Anything from a dog’s tail wagging to emotional relationships, intimate relationships, everything… just any sound. I just have an incredible need to write. The thing about playing instruments, I don’t approach it like somebody who wants to play an instrument just to play it. I wanna write songs on it, I want to compose. That actually makes it incredibly fulfilling.
BGG: That leads me to my main question- because I have absolutely no talent- except I’m really good at doing laundry- do you write the lyrics first or the music or does it come together at once?
SBH: I love this question because I’m always trying to figure this out. I sit down and I will play and feel like it’s starting to come together, but realize that it comes in bits; sometimes the lyrical theme will come first, then a musical theme will come- and then they keep switching off. At the end of the day they kinda come together, but if the words are not there, the whole song sucks. Even if one lyric is off then musically I am very dissatisfied. It can be a musical answer to a lyrical problem. It’s totally true. Someone can say ‘this song is great’ but I say ‘there’s something wrong’ and I found out the melody was wrong at the end of the third chord and then the lyric comes. It’s really cool actually. So in a way it’s really out of control. You never know where the solution is coming.
BGG: What is your favorite song you’ve done- which one is your baby? Do you have one?
SBH: No, I have songs that I love to perform because they’re just so cool (laughs) and I really feel I can be so expressive. Then I have songs that I love because other people love them so much that it’s amazing people have found them and have this relationship to the song and it makes me get into them even more. Of course I like “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover”… “Now I Lay Me Down”… because they kind of got me into the world or I would have been an isolated artist. But then I have songs like “Bare The Weight Of Me” and “The One You Have Not Seen” which to perform are so lively- I can really really go far.
BGG: What was it like when “Damn” became such a huge hit? You went from a regular person to some one hearing herself on the radio. What’s that like?
SBH: Well, because I lived in New York, I actually never heard it on the radio. I never knew it was a hit and I didn’t understand that “hitness” of it. So really much later, only recently, did I understand how difficult it was to have a hit and what it really meant and how lucky I was to cut through. Now I have gotten independent but at that time I had a lot of problems. It was a hit but not a big enough hit for the record company. So as much of a hit as it was, I still felt very beneath “normal”. That’s really interesting because now I do feel the joy of it. Now when I perform it I see what an incredible hit it was and how it affected people. That’s the joy - it’s very intimate now.
BGG: Everyone knows that song now…
SBH: When I started writing songs I wanted to be a great songwriter, I didn’t want to be a performer. I never had the ambition to be famous. I wanted to be a great musician. I wanted to write songs I could give to one person and say ‘Hear this song’ and I wanted to move them to pieces. In a way I like that people know my work more than me.
BGG: Let’s say you weren’t a musician and you had no talent- y’know, someone like me… what job would you be doing?
SBH: Now I don’t believe that about you!! (laughs) Let me think… I wanted to be an English teacher when I was young. If I had absolutely no creative sense of myself I’d probably want to be involved in something where I was teaching-even adults. I was about to volunteer for something here and I had go on tour. Teaching people who are illiterate to read and that really excited me. I wanted to do that. If it wasn’t teaching English Literature then it’d be something with the ocean- like Greenpeace. I’d wanna be on the front lines, though. I’d always like to have been an archeologist, too. (laughs) In fact, I could still do all of these things! (laughs)
BGG: What would you change if you could do your life over?
SBH: I would have a family that really loved each other, that we could work our problems out, and not be so distant.
BGG: What’s your favorite part of touring? Your least favorite?
SBH: My favorite part is the actual being on stage and relating to the audience- that’s really fantastic. And also relating to the musicians- that’s very energetic. The audience is always pushing and pulling me and requesting songs I forgot I wrote- it’s really incredible. It’s like they know stuff about me that I never realized they could possibly know- stuff I’d forgotten… it’s so great! My least favorite part is leaving my animals. It’s been incredibly difficult.
BGG: Who are your favorite artists? What kind of music are you listening to?
SBH: It would be impossible to name my favorite artist because in the whole world of creative people - it’s limitless. What I’m listening to right now is a lot of music from other countries. A lot of Chinese music, an Italian artist, a lot of compilation tapes. I’m just wanting to pick up things- I don’t want to be in control. Before this I was kinda obsessed with Leonard Bernstein. But now I’m just really in a stage of buying all these tapes I would have never heard before.
BGG: If you could only have one instrument, which would it be?
SBH: Piano. I love the piano.
BGG: What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekend?
SBH: I really love to write. I love writing songs and on weekends everything quiets down. I absolutely love going to the park- I love skateboarding. The beach is my favorite. I love going to movies, dinner, cooking, reading- I never get to read enough. What don’t I love? I love living!
BGG: How would you like people to remember you when you’re gone?
SBH: As a very generous and loving person.
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